Interview with Rebecca Spears


Bill Howze: You’ve woven together several evocative themes in your essay “Breath“: memory, family gatherings, cold weather, disease—tuberculosis in particular, its symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, means of contagion, and cultural manifestations, and porches—porches appear more frequently than any other setting. How did these themes present themselves to you?

Rebecca Spears:Breath” didn’t begin intentionally as an essay, nor as a whole story that I could tell in a linear way. I didn’t know what this story was or why the image of my grandfather on the porch at the VA hospital was so important to me. Yet throughout my life, the image would slip into focus, from time to time, in my waking memory.

The process of making “Breath” began with that fragment and other memory fragments that I jotted in notebooks and put into computer files, images that, for a long time, I didn’t know were connected or what they really meant to me—so I suppose the notion of themes wasn’t apparent until much later in the process.

I’d been writing poetry for some time, and I often work with images first, writing down an image that intrigues me, trying to get all its details sketched. I may not do anything with that image ever, or it may sit in my notebook for a while before I use it.

Anyhow, once I realized I was collecting images of cold winters, of the pleasure of the cold, of having one’s breath taken away—both literally, as in disease, and figuratively, as in a stunning winter scene, I was able to start recalling other images of breath and air. That’s when the larger theme of breath began to take shape.

From there I veered toward the way that cold weather can bring people together in a huddle, in closed spaces. And as I continued to work with these images, I thought about “cabin fever,” how the air gets stale, and less oxygenated, how when you step out into a cold landscape, there’s a momentary feel of the air turning crystal and filling your lungs with good, fresh, oxygen.

Then I began collecting images of the coming warmth in spring, and how that meant gathering with friends and family outdoors on our porches. Some of my best memories are of relaxing on porches, sharing the time and space with friends and family. Porches, I realized, are safe places, because they are connected to our shelter, and yet from a porch, we can look out at the world.


BH: You introduce the term “exsanguination,” the way “blood retreats from the vulnerable parts of the body, most noticeably the nose,” to describe “the air on cold days and the experience of inhaling it.” In addition to the sensation, the term also describes a movement that recurs in your essay in situations of vulnerability: the family moves away from the ice- rimed windows, toward the oven and the kitchen table; you retreat from contact with the “snot-boys” possibly carried by your students; waiting for the results of a TB test, your anxiety manifests itself as a tightness in your chest, a sort of nervous exsanguination. What other responses to vulnerabilities might haunt this piece?

RS: I first experienced winters that could kill a person when I moved to the Midwest with my husband, so that he could finish an undergraduate degree and then attend medical school. We moved from Texas with one child, and along the way, we had two more children. Over the decade that we lived in Illinois and Iowa, I realized how vulnerable a family is to the vagaries of fortune and well-being.

One vivid memory I have is of taking our kids to the park on a wintry day. The hills were overlaid with snow, and we sledded for an hour or two, having a fun romp. Within a week, both kids had developed pneumonia, an illness that I’d never thought much about. At the time, I believed that our afternoon in the park might have been to blame. Luckily, with antibiotics, the kids recovered. Yet my son, who was asthmatic, took longer to get well, and the cold continued to aggravate his asthma terribly all that winter. (By the way, I didn’t realize until much later that our sledding hadn’t caused the pneumonia. It is a bacterial infection, and that is why it can be treated with antibiotics).

The second year in the Midwest, everyone in the family (except me) came down with a terrible flu, and I played nurse to all of them for a couple of weeks. At one point, I thought my husband was going to die, really. This was possibly the first time I realized how precious life is and how it might be taken away in an instant. We are indeed vulnerable creatures. So I think this essay tries to put into perspective how germs (or “the snot-boys”) can change our lives in monumental ways.

And the epic cold that I first experienced in the Midwest could and did kill people every year we lived there; people would get stranded in blizzards and perish; people would fall on icy sidewalks and break their bones. The power could go out and someone might freeze to death in his own home. So perhaps the larger vulnerability that haunts this essay is our fragility, our mortality.


BH: How did you decide the order of the eight sections of this essay? Each section begins with an engaging sentence, and there are only a couple of relatively direct transitions from one section to the next. An editor might observe that the essay could have begun with any of these five sections—your grandfather waving from a screened porch; Claire’s reference to the “snot-boys”; your mother’s story of your grandfather with TB living at your house; your teen years and swimming; or even your recent experience of having a small cabin built on wooded land.

R.S: In the end, I sought to make this piece image-driven, because the process of writing itself was so image-driven. In addition, I wanted the reader to experience the discovery of the connections among the images as I discovered them myself. The essay tries to mimic my own wonderment, as I uncovered the connections.

Of course, I took a risk in shaping the essay in this way. I realized that readers could get easily bored by it and decide not to read; or that the reader might be baffled even by the end of the essay. Thus, for many of the sections, I tried to tease out the strongest part of each scene and begin close to the highest point of tension to keep the reader’s interest, and I hope, to make it easier for readers to find the relationships among the scenes. Fiction writers and screenwriters are often advised to go into a scene “late and leave early.” I kept that in mind while crafting each section of the essay. At the same time, I was also weaving in the larger story of tuberculosis and how it literally takes away the breath.

The last thing I want to address is the seeming lack of transition in the essay. I decided to use juxtapositioning as a way to stitch the pieces together. Poets often juxtapose phrases and images in a poem in ways that let the reader make his or her own connections in the interstices. In my poetry, this is a habit I’ve had a lot of practice with. I wanted to try that with the essay. And I might add that, as a teacher of writing, I have to work so often with my students on logical progression in academic writing that it exhausts me. As a creative writer, then, I want to let loose and get away from the strictly linear form.



William Howze is a humanities program consultant and video producer for museums and cultural organizations. He received his BA and MPhil degrees from Yale University, specializing in American Studies, Art History and Museum work. For his PhD from the University of Texas, he documented the influence of genre painting and Western art on the films of John Ford. Recently he has selected works of art and written essays to guide viewing for Medical Humanities, An Introduction, a textbook to be published by the Cambridge University Press. In addition to producing several dozen short videos for art museum exhibitions, he edited and co-produced The Strange Demise of Jim Crow, a film that documents the struggle to integrate public facilities in Houston that has been broadcast on local and national public television. He has taught as adjunct professor, visiting artist, or faculty advisor for the following institutions: University of Houston College of Education, Art Department, College of Architecture, and Distance Education Program; Texas A&M University Visualization Laboratory; Houston Baptist University MLA Program; University of Houston Clear Lake History and Humanities Program; and Texas Christian University Department of Radio‑TV‑Film. He created the department of Special Programs at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and initiated the museum’s program of public lectures, workshops, festivals, film series, and continuing education college courses, with funding from the NEA, NEH, TCA, TCH and other sources.



Interview with Paul Beckman


Sally Reno: I love your SOS piece Higher and Harder! Tell us something about how it came to be, your inspiration, your process

Paul Beckman: I’m in a writing group and we take turns putting out prompts. This prompt was to pick the title of a couple of books in your house and write a story using the titles. I picked Elie Wiesel’s Soul’s on Fire and Italo Calvino’s The Path to the Nest of Spiders.

I had no idea what I was going to write about. The first sentence came to me and I followed sentence after sentence with what seemed logical to the writing and ended up with an ending unlike anything I’d written before. This is my basic writing process. I rarely know an ending much less a complete story when I begin.


SR: Today you are published/publishing just everywhere and kind of setting the world on fire. When did you think of yourself as a writer and was it always your plan to concentrate on writing when you retired from the daily grind.

PB: I’ve always written a lot and submitted frequently during the manila envelope and stamped return envelope days. I wake up anxious to write and go to sleep thinking of stories. The only difference between being retired and writing and working is that I somehow had more free time when I was working. I knew that I’d continue to write as well as travel and use my photography skills above and beneath the water. It’s worked out that my photography has taken a back seat to writing and I’m not surprised. I find it hard to devote anywhere near equal time to two creative endeavors. So my original plan proved the old adage “Man plans—God laughs.”


SR: Your writing is well known for its humor. We know that the comic is harder to do well than tragic. Do you have any professional tips for us on how to get to funny?

PB: I see both the humor and the tragic all around me and both manifest themselves in my writing. I don’t plan to add humor—it comes out as part of the story or it doesn’t. If I have a tip, it’s to allow yourself as a writer to see the bizarre in all of the situations around you. I was told that my story Family Healing, which was one of the winners of The Best Small Fictions 2017, was aided in being chosen because of the humor injected in a serious situation. I write a lot about dysfunctional families and relationships and those subjects lend themselves to the tragic/comic mix.


SR: Your narrative characters are often flawed, frequently grumpy or angry, sometimes combative. Yet, they are always likeable and relatable. They make me think of Lenny Bruce’s famous tag line, “We’re all the same schmuck.” Please tell us how you achieve this, and talk about your relationships with your characters.

PB:  There’s an old saying, “You never know what’s going on behind someone’s closed door.” I imagine I know and can put myself in their place or insert myself in a position to watch what goes on.

The smiling glad-handler’s a tyrant to his family; the goody-goody kids are screwing and doing drugs. The Rabbi is a misanthrope unbeliever. The true innocents are the little kids. My characters seem to choose the paths they take and insist on going in that direction. Years ago I was in the Anderson Street Workshop in New Haven, run by the wonderful writer and teacher, Alice Mattison, and she used to talk about her characters dictating where they should be going and how to get there. My characters role play so often to become what you call the ‘likeable’ and ‘relatable.’


SR: Your wheelhouse is at the shorter or micro-fiction end of the flash spectrum. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the short-short-shortest form generally and your reasons for being attracted to it.

PB: Unless there’s a requirement for a specific word count (and most of those are in the lower range) I do not set out with a goal to write to a short-short piece. One of the great things about writing flash is that you write what you write and stop when you’re finished. Nancy Stohlman, a writer, mentor and editor of mine told me to “arrive late to the story and leave early.” That has been a great piece of advice that has allowed me to write a story and then rewrite it in half the word count and if necessary come to a compromise. I also learn by reading flash and short-short flash stories and am often in awe of how much a good writer can say in one or two hundred words.



Sally Reno’s fiction has been a winner of National Public Radio’s 3-Minute Fiction Contest, the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Review  Prosetry Contest, Vestal Review’s 7 Word Caption Contest, Fast Forward’s 6 Word Story Contest, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and The Best Small Fictions 2016.  She is Managing Editor at Blink-Ink Print.


Interview with Millicent Borges Accardi


Mary Akers: Hi, Millicent. Thanks so much for speaking with me today about the wonderful, lyrical poetry in your new book “Only More So.” Let’s start with the first things a reader encounters: the title and cover. I love the title and the title poem, especially the lines:

“That now she must survive by owning air,
holding back the red, the full, the bare,
the proud canvases of flat language paper
that once told her everything she needed
to know.

It was like this, only more so.”

Those lines and the title you chose and many of the poems in the book speak to me of suffering, but also of the light that can follow suffering. Or perhaps simply the desire to keep on, despite the suffering, which seems like its own form of hopefulness. Would you care to comment on that?

Millicent Borges Accardi: There are times when suffering seems inerrant to the human condition, as something that is, we try to believe that suffering is apart from us, something that is dumped on us, something we have to endure, to fight, to guard against. When, in fact, suffering is one of the keys of a chord played in life, not good or bad just “there.” Equal to or alongside joy and satisfaction. Of course it is easier to say this from a point of distance and more difficult when you are in the weeds or in the darkness of a painful situation and it is or seems impossible to look at the sky above.

Suffering does not necessarily stem from conflict. But sometimes it is just the hollow sound that the heart can make.

Image result for Only More So Millicent Borges Accardi
MA: And the cover. Beautiful. It feels like an apt image, too, that mandala. Your poems speak to the universe–the vast experience of life–and also, by extension, to the universal (by way of the specific). The phrase “repeated questions” (to the woman from the soldiers) from the title poem sends us back to the mandala for meditation, for consideration, for a way toward peace. Was that your intention? Or am I reading too much into it?

MBA: The book cover was created by Salmon’s graphic designer Siobhán. Directors Jessie Lendennie (Chairperson) and Siobhán Hutson work together at Salmon Poetry to create the beautiful books they publish. The cover of Only More So is a mandala, which seems suited to my work since a mandala is a microcosm of the world and poems are like that, brief moments, or snapshots of a universal truth. Mandalas are used in Buddhism, as spiritual guidance, as well as an aid to meditation, focus and trance. In fact writers may refer to the process as similar to being in a trance. Like the poet Ralph Angel, says,

I always compose in longhand. I will be in my trance and find myself putting down a line or two that jams me up—. . . There was a reason for it if I was in my trance, if I was in a pure place and I was hearing language in a way that wasn’t distracted. It’s just another problem to solve. (Sleet magazine interview March 2012 )


MA: And just a publication-process question: did you have a say in your cover? I have heard so many different stories from authors about the process of finding a cover for their books–sometimes it’s a joy, other times a nightmare. How did that process work for you?

MBA: My husband is an artist and for the first two books he had paintings that magically fit in with the book cover, but this one?  Not so much. Salmon Poetry was wonderful to work with. I sent the designer a few suggestions, and then she came up with the mandala, which suited the book perfectly.


MA: I loved the poem “The World in 2001.” The collective voice works so well in this poem, the voice of the narrator and the father speak as one about perceptions and loyalties, and then it spins at the end into helplessness in a beautiful and moving way. Do you consciously plan that turn in a poem? Or is that a more organic process that the poem itself seems to “want” as you write and revise?

MBA: As many times as I have tried to plan “a turn” in a poem, or to outline an idea, it always seems to be the result of the more organic process. As you say, the poem itself seems to “want.” In stories too, no matter how much time I spend on an official diagram, I always throw them out when I start into the work and the work takes me on its own path. In school I was terrible at the preliminary steps for the Final Paper where the teacher had student prepare a Thesis Statement and supporting ideas. Typically, I would just write the essay, then spend hours building an outline backwards so I could “show my work process.” I did the same thing in logic and math.

So letting the poems grow naturally means I do not have to work backwards to create a contrived outline.


MA:I loved “The Well.” I remember that story in the news of the little girl trapped in the well and it wouldn’t leave me alone for days. Is that what drove you to this poem? Do current events and/or news often compel you to comment or explore them in a poem?

MBA: Like the rest of the nation, I was transfixed to the story of the little girl who had fallen into a well. We all wanted the best for her. It was such an American story. A poor family. A struggle. A very sweet personable child. The firemen were heroes and everyone had their eyes on the tragedy, hoping for the best. We wanted things to work out. We needed it to have a happy ending.

Sometimes a poem can serve as a divining rod, passing over events in life.


MA: Oh, and “Renovation.” Holy cow, that one slayed me. The voice of that poem really speaks to me. It gets inside my head with its PTSD tiles and grout and I hurt as I read, but in a good, cleansing way. What was the inspiration for this poem?

MBA: This poem washed over me too, as it was being written. The imagery fell on the paper, and I really did not see the whole picture until the poem was finished. Sometimes, I fear we trivialize things by discussing the back story, instead of focusing on the end result: the work, the poem itself. An unimportant moment can lead to a multi-layered poem, and it may be a mistake to breathe the beginning, as if that were a key, that when obtained, unlocks the secret to the poem’s ultimate message.


MA: Fair enough. Then let’s talk about “In a Certain Village,” a wonderful allegory that riffs on a fairy tale that we all know well, but then it shifts and we are left to think about the bigger story of that story we think we know so well. In fact, there are many times that the poems in this book take on big but familiar themes. I think that readers will be satisfied by the references and their exploration, but I do wonder if you felt some trepidation at the start when these common themes began to emerge? I know I always do, and it’s something along the lines of Will I do it justice? Or, How can I say anything new?

MBA: I didn’t feel any trepidation, I just wanted to tell the story we all know in a different way, from a wider perspective, perhaps. As if this is one of the most important stories in the world and it is universal. Generally speaking a fairy tale has a beginning, a middle, and an end, How those pieces cling together and grow and connect those three areas may be the same, but the interpretation or moral of the story varies from culture to culture. For example, Disney uses watered-down fairy tales as fun stories for children where as Struwwelpeter (1844), a book of horrific stories by Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, is meant to frighten and discipline children.

At AWP this year, I was on a panel, entitled Monsters Under Your Bed: Writing from Folklore, Reinterpreting Legend, with Jose Faus ,Maria Vasquez Boyd, Amy Sayre Baptista, and  Miguel M. Morales where we discussed literary interpretations of folklore from cautionary tales to tales of terror. like El Cucui, Los Duendes, and La Llorona. My next book, that I have been working on for many years is a collection of Portuguese fairy tales.


MA: Sounds wonderful! I can’t wait to read it. And now, because we are a recovery-themed journal and because the answers to my last question are always fascinating, what does “recovery” mean to you?

MBA: Recovery does not mean starting over. It is building a momentum with a clean source. It means being significantly changed, re-aligned or evolved. A “new normal,” is not back to the original, a perfect or imperfect or deeply flawed original. Recovery is not back to the way things were or used to be. Recovery itself could be physical, mental, emotional, but  true recovery is a transformation not a return.



Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American poet, is the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Only More So (forthcoming from Salmon) and Woman on a Shaky Bridge. Her awards include the NEA, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, FLAD, Money for Women (Barbara Deming) Millicent holds degrees in English and writing from CSULB and the University of Southern California